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Is panic a rational response to 21st century business, politics, and society?

Posted Oct 22 2008 6:15pm

This essay -- "The New World Disorder: The much-heralded individualist spirit of American society relies on nurturing a fear of other people" -- opens with the line, "Panic is our national pastime," then goes on to detail how the U.S. has become a more frightening place in recent times, making thoughtful, provocative statements like:

We locate panic at the extreme end of the anxiety spectrum, as the awful truth of a phobia, the end result of what psychiatrist Robert L. DuPont refers to as the "what if?" of horrific possibility. The possibility of panic, however, covers a much broader band of the spectrum. The news media may not want panic attacks to actually occur, but they like us to routinely consider the possibility that something awful might happen if we do not maintain a healthy level of anxiety — and keep watching the news for updates. Witness coverage of the scare of African killer bees a few years ago, recently featured in Bowling for Columbine. Be alert. Get scared. This anxiety constitutes a sort of pre-emptive strike, if you will, on the panic state. Awful things often do happen. A smoking gun does not need to be fired; the suggestion of a gun's potential is enough. The very possibility of weapons of mass destruction, for example, can inspire a state of panic. The weapons don't need to be there.

One cannot underestimate the power of military ideology to redefine a citizenry. To see the world as a never-ending series of conflicts with other nations and peoples is very narrow-minded — but it's how we teach American history, and how the current government defines the agenda for American foreign policy. It also defines how we view the future of security in general. As we develop greater means by which to treat illness and vanquish terrorists, the future should seem brighter — but it can't seem too bright. With the promulgation of Patriot Acts and Total Information Awareness, the distinction between military and psychological notions of panic is becoming scant indeed. The sensation that someone is always watching, that our worst fears are always on the verge of being realized, and that somehow our private lives are being infiltrated by Big Brother — this may be the Orwellian reality of the future, but it sounds like today's domestic policy to me.

Along with psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison and countless others, I have experimented with and benefited from the wonders of drug therapy. But it gives me the panic to find myself discussing medication within ten minutes of meeting a therapist for the first time. Undoubtedly, expediency is a consideration in these matters, as many people are panicky and depressed — and psychologists are overbooked. The turn to expedient solutions, however, corresponds to the hasty, undemocratic way in which American politics currently operate. Rather than acknowledge the collective dimensions of panic inspired by threats of war, economic downturns, environmental holocaust, general greed and corruption, and so on, psychopharmacology aims to find the appropriate pill for an individualized illness. Like the "one person, one vote" approach to democracy, psychopharmacology may have good effects, but it is not geared to make the world a hospitable place. It won't bring back the sense of neighborhoods earlier generations enjoyed as children, for that requires a trust in one's neighbors. Treating the symptoms of illness allows us to more or less dismiss its larger social causes. If panic is treated primarily as something located within individual psyches, then the world doesn't have a problem. The advice of W. after 9/11 — business as usual, go out and spend — is offered as a sort of panacea for panicked America. To those who already felt insecure and panicky . . . well, just watch your TV screens. We've got a new reality show on CNN we're sure you're going to love.

Good stuff.
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